The Return of How I Spent My Summer Fellowship: Walter Damrosch

Walter Damrosch. Bain News Service, date unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

This is the last of a series of blog posts by this year’s Pruett Fellows. The following post is by Catherine Hughes, Graduate Student in Musicology, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For my independent research as one of the 2010 Pruett Fellows from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I chose to study Walter Damrosch’s role in the early years of the music appreciation movement in the United States. Damrosch committed himself to exposing his audiences to both European “masterworks” and new compositions by American composers. For a brief time, he acted as the impresario of his own opera company in the 1880s which made tours throughout the United States. Damrosch also served as a conductor with the Metropolitan Opera Company in the 1890s, and as the conductor of the New York Symphony Society from 1885 until the Society’s merger with the New York Philharmonic in 1928. He conducted the premieres of George Gershwin’s American in Paris and his piano concerto, as well as works by Deems Taylor, Charles Loeffler, and John Alden Carpenter.

At the end of the 1920s, Damrosch extended his efforts to expose American audiences to “the best music” beyond the concert hall. He began conducting regular radio broadcasts of classical music. In 1927, NBC presented a series of lecture-concerts with Damrosch conducting, and in 1928, Damrosch began his Music Appreciation Hour for children on the same network. The MAH continued until the spring of 1942. Damrosch designed his broadcasts for children so that they might be part of a school’s regular curriculum, and NBC produced an instructor’s manual and student notebooks for each season to be used in the classroom. The purpose of these broadcasts, which were divided into four series designed for different age groups, was to “open up the vast and important field of music to the younger generation… and to initiate them into the beauties of the works of the great music masters” (Instructor’s Manual for Music Appreciation Hour 1929-1930, Broadcasting Materials, Box 15, Folder 1, Damrosch-Blaine Collection).

For this project, I worked primarily with the Damrosch-Blaine Collection. I am interested in what pieces Damrosch programmed as part of his presentation of “masterworks” that would form the basis of music appreciation for his audiences, as well as how he used these pieces to illustrate and explain broader concepts. The transcripts of Damrosch’s broadcasts, his correspondence, and the instructor’s manuals and student notebooks in the Damrosch-Blaine collection reveal an important connection between the works Damrosch chose to present and his methods. Damrosch programmed primarily Romantic orchestral pieces. He used Beethoven’s fifth and ninth symphonies and Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tristan each year, and he regularly programmed works by Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. At the same time, he omitted later composers, arguing that “children should not be confused by experiments. Only that which has been proven worthy should be used to build the foundation of their knowledge.” The instructor’s manuals and student notebooks in the collection reflect Damrosch’s continuing process of refining his methods for teaching his radio students. Damrosch had a systematic approach to teaching informed listening. He began with recognition of the instruments in the orchestra and the broad categories like “fun in music” or “fairy tales in music.” He illustrated these broad categories of music with different pieces each year. For the more advanced students, Damrosch presented listening for complex forms and historical styles. The pieces he programmed for these series were more consistent from year to year.

In addition to the Damrosch-Blaine Collection, I also worked with papers in the Damrosch-Mannes and the Damrosch-Tee Van Collections, as well as the NBC History Files held in the Recorded Sound Division. The NBC Collection includes recordings of many of Damrosch’s broadcasts and internal reports on the successes and weaknesses of the MAH.

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